Earlier this spring the food sector witnessed the joining of two of the UK’s most renowned crop research centres – Cambridge-based National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) and Kent’s East Malling Research (EMR). Produce Business UK examines how fresh produce buyers and growers stand to benefit from the pairing, which has resulted in NIAB acquiring EMR and the formation of NIAB EMR
A “potent” new force for British crop science
M1, M25 and M26 are some of the UK’s busiest motorways but they are also the names of some of the world’s most widely-used topfruit rootstocks. Part of the Malling (M) series, these rootstocks were developed at EMR during the first half of the last century. They represent a prime example of the global significance of the work carried out by the Kent-based research centre.
Despite its valued expertise, however, the future of this century-old British institution recently began to look uncertain. Affected by the drying up of UK government funding over the past decade, EMR was finding it difficult to balance its books – reporting to Companies House a debt of £1.57 million at the end of the 2014/15 tax year, for example. It therefore sought a partner to afford it greater stability, and, fortunately, such an ally was found in NIAB.
Tina Barsby, CEO of the new, combined organisation, explains: “The move creates a potent new force in independent applied research; bringing together the scientific expertise required to support progressive crop production at all levels, and represents a major step forward in NIAB’s plans.
“Our experience of merger and acquisition in recent years – including the successful integration of TAG and CUF as part of the NIAB business – puts us in a strong position to realise the full potential of a combined organisation.”
Transferring knowledge from crop to crop
NIAB’s area of expertise – namely arable crops, such as oat and wheat, plus potatoes and ornamentals – may not appear to have much in common with fruit crops but, as NIAB EMR’s new managing director David Neill tells Produce Business UK, the new partnership will actually create a pool of complementary expertise.
He says: “The practical issue is that we are now going to have a viable business with improved economies of scale. We are reducing our overhead costs, so there’s an element of financial viability. But we are also going to be able to develop the business.”
By bringing together the sciences, Neill hopes NIAB EMR will be more successful in applying for grant funding since there will more value in terms of impact on combinable crops as well fruit crops.
“It’s about knowledge transfer across the sector,” he points out. “If you are submitting a grant application to look at microbial activity in soil structure that type of science is going to relate to a raspberry plant in the same way that it’s going to relate to a field of wheat.”
An aerial view of the East Malling Research facility in Kent
Getting produce buyers involved
Neill hopes fresh produce buyers will want to play a key role in the future of this new so-called powerhouse too.
He explains: “Ultimately, we are hoping retailers will drive the research – working with their network of growers to improve crop husbandry – because, what do retailers want? They want security of supply. They want their crops produced in a sustainable way and at the right price. The work we are doing here is to enable their growers to do just that.
“Take irrigation for example. If we can leverage funding and implement it across several important crops, we are improving the quality of all of these crops. The buyer is getting products that taste right and keep for a while and growers are going to be more certain of being able to deliver quality product at the right time – which is what the buyer wants.”
Bill Parker, director of research and knowledge exchange for crops for the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), agrees there are benefits to being able to transfer knowledge from crop to crop.
“EMR was a key contractor for us and we do a lot of work on the arable side as well,” he says. “We are now looking to see where we can join up agendas across the different crop sectors.
“This approach also matches the direction of AHDB’s research strategy. It may well be that having an organisation with such a breadth of expertise is of benefit to the industry. Making sure the industry has the capability to produce as high quality product as possible is obviously going to have an impact on the quality of the produce in the supply chain.”
Retaining expertise for the fruit sector
Clearly there are advantages to being able to pass over expertise from one crop to another. But it is also crucial that the UK continues to have a base for fruit research, as Adrian Barlow, the outgoing chief executive of English Apples and Pears, and Jack Ward, chief executive of British Growers Association, both emphasise.
From finding a way to control canker – a devastating fungal disease that affects both orchards and fruit in store – to developing new fruit varieties with built-in disease resistance, there are a plethora of important topics that NIAB EMR scientists are currently working on to help buyers secure a sustainable supply of good quality British fruit.
Barlow believes that without such a service, the UK would have to turn elsewhere for its expertise. He says: “There are so many areas where we need more research – from helping growers to cope with losing crop protection chemicals to finding a remedy for canker. It’s obviously very important that there should be a strong organisation in the UK to undertake appropriate research on topfruit and other fruit crops.”
According to Barlow, EMR has always undertaken that role and carried it out with “extraordinary success”. “If we did not have a research centre in the UK we would be dependent on research done overseas, which would be tragic,” he claims. “Hopefully this tie up with NIAB will result in greater stability and will ensure that there’s a successful future, both in terms of undertaking the appropriate research and also operating in a manner where the books are balanced.”
Barlow believes EMR scientists will be extremely pleased about the tie-up since it will award them greater confidence about the stability of the operation and its future prospects. “I am just delighted that this is happening,” he exclaims.
Ward at British Growers concurs that EMR serves an integral role to the fresh produce business. “EMR was a unique operation and if we had lost it it would have been impossible to recreate it,” he suggests. “Retaining that expertise is really important, so NIAB’s decision to take it under its wing, and to move it forward has got to be good news. We have retained a facility that’s very important.”
Aligning science strategies
Over the coming months NIAB EMR’s new MD Neill will be working with the East Malling Trust, which will support the new group, to ensure the East Malling site in Kent is developed and operated to reinforce NIAB EMR.
In addition, NIAB’s deputy director Stuart Knight will review the science across the organisation with a view to aligning strategies.
Meanwhile, fresh produce buyers can remain confident that the UK’s topfruit sector has retained EMR’s vital knowledge bank.